Dune / Frank Herbert’s Dune

Chris WooDs wrote this review.

It’s a surprisingly long time since Frank Herbert’s Dune was first published. I read it in the mid 1970s and had assumed it was new then. Although it’s possible the UK publication lagged a little, I was a bit taken aback when I found an original copyright date of 1965 in the print history of my copy of the book. Prior to Dune, Frank Herbert had not had many books published. There were a number of short stories in the SF magazines, a novel ‘The Dragon in the Sea’ in the mid 50’s, but it was Dune, published when Frank Herbert was in his 40’s, which put him into the premier league of SF authors.

Back then, much science fiction still concentrated on the scientific and technological advances that authors expected, often with minimal characterisation and just a ‘backdrop’ of an alien planet. The star of the story was as likely to be the invention as it was to be the inventor. That’s not to minimise the enjoyment of a well written space cowboy story. And authors like Clarke and Asimov of course were making uncannily accurate predictions of what was to come and, among my other favourite authors, van Vogt and Heinlein (for example) were creating much fuller senarios with complex societies and complete characters.

Dune, however, like Asimov’s Foundation, was breathtaking in its complexity and scope. But Foundation used psychohistory and, although that was a discipline not a physical invention, Foundation was still, in that sense, classic SF — based on a scientific development. Dune, however, was very unusual for a story published in the ’60’s. Dune didn’t make a fuss of the scientific advances. More like the later Star Wars, advanced science was built into the story of Dune and almost taken for granted. Dune is a novel of politics and political intrigue, sociology, freedom fighters, oppression and revolution, ecological issues, mental powers, drugs and religion. In addition, it’s a very thoughtful story of people, who have real character… with strengths and failings; these are believable characters. After more than 35 years, the story hasn’t aged a day. It’s as fresh, readable and relevant now, as it was when it was written. In fact, some of the issues and parallels are arguably more relevant now. The method of construction and efficiency of the stillsuits, clothing used by natives to survive the arid desert conditions and its inhabitants, has more in common with the type of low cost and low environmental impact but high efficiency solutions now being sought for our own ecological problems than with ’60’s thinking.

The Dune story takes place on the barren desert planet Arrakis. A harsh and unpleasant environment, barely habitable and home to a few desert tribes, the Fremen, who must devote much of their energy to survival. Huge sandworms range in the deserts, attracted by vibration and making all travel dangerous. The most valuable commodity on the planet to the inhabitants is water, all of which is recycled and all of which belongs to the tribe. Unfortunately for the inhabitants, the most valuable commodity on the planet to everyone else in the galaxy is Melange or ‘spice’, which is one of the most important materials in the entire interstellar system. It is a medicine used by the richest people in the galaxy to combat ageing. It is a drug essential to the powerful religious group, the Bene Gesserit, to develop their mental and psi powers. It is necessary for all interstellar navigation and travel and, once used, it is addictive. It is always in short supply. All attempts to synthesise it or create it elsewhere have failed; Arrakis is the only source. The handful of powerful trading families are engaged in constant political intrigue and infighting to try to influence the Galactic Emperor to grant them the rights to ‘administer’, in fact exploit, the planet and control the spice. The book is set when the long-term plans of the Bene Gesserit to control the empire are nearing fruition. The Dune Fremen have prophesies of a messianic leader who will help them throw off the oppressive traders and revolutionise the feudal society. Meanwhile, Paul, the son of House Attrides, one of the less oppressive trading families, is in hiding with the Fremen on Dune after a dispute between trading families.

In the mid ’80’s there was a major Hollywood film of Dune, directed by David Lynch and staring Sting, the lead singer from the band The Police. As films go, it wasn’t too bad but, on a personal level, I found it dismally disappointing. I read a lot, much of that reading being science fiction and fantasy and, if I have read and enjoyed a book, I very rarely enjoy watching a film of it. The problem for me is that, when I read a book, I build a mental image of what it looks like… I interpret the characters and the backgrounds… my imagination is given free range. A film, even a good one, can only provide what the studio thinks it should look like, and the watcher is effectively just spoon fed someone else’s interpretation. However clever the props and however scary the monsters, they usually don’t fit my ideas. The other problem afflicting films of books is that it is rarely possible to get a full length book into a couple of hours. In the case of Dune, it’s a complete impossibility. The cinema film could only skim the surface, leaving out huge areas of plot, most subplots and much of the subtlety that makes Dune such a rewarding book to read. My other problem with films is that they usually have well known actors and actresses in key roles, and I find it quite difficult to believe in someone that I have already mentally typecast or associated with a different character. This was a problem for me with Dune the film, since Sting, although actually well cast, is too well known as a singer to be a believable baddie.

I do in fact very much enjoy some films but, in general, as the above paragraph makes fairly clear, I’m not really a committed film fan. In the case of Dune, however, for anyone who wants to watch it on screen, there is an excellent video interpretation directed by John Harrison, and staring William Hurt as Paul. This is, in effect, a made for TV series, and I first saw it almost by accident on a satellite channel where it was being shown in parts, later finding the DVD of the complete series. In this interpretation, the story runs for about 4 hours. While even that is not enough to include everything in the book, at least it is enough to include all the more important events and have enough of the subplots and background for the story to both make sense and have some depth. The special effects were probably less expensive than those in the Hollywood film but, even though a bit less flashy in places, I find them nevertheless effective enough on a home TV screen. The indoor sets of the palace are good, the underground villages (sietch) of the Fremen are very believable, and the outdoor scenes are spectacular in places. Every outdoor night scene seems to have a large moon hanging just above the horizon, which eventually became amusing but, generally, the sets are alien yet believable. Both the sets and the special effects correspond quite well to the images I have always imagined when reading the book, making it quite easy to relate to this interpretation. The casting is very good and, as most of the actors are people I don’t instantly recognise, I don’t have the problem of their characters being coloured by prejudgements based on previous roles. Neither have Frank Herbert’s characters or the story been obviously altered to fit the actors, something that happens all too often with Hollywood productions. I get the impression that the actors have genuinely been chosen to fit the characters of the story. I found this version of the story rewarding and enjoyable to watch. It sticks closely to the book and, while it can’t be complete and certainly isn’t perfect, it is, as far as I can tell, a very genuine attempt to portray the book as accurately and honestly as possible. I would never suggest anyone should watch a video instead of reading the original book, but this is one video interpretation that I do recommend.

Being a DVD, of course there are different editions at different prices for different world regions, and it’s quite usual for the UK region 2 PAL edition to be more expensive than the USA region 1 edition. For that reason, I would suggest that anyone buying a DVD player in the UK find a multi-region one, since they are no more expensive. Film publishers are also not above producing various versions to try to get your money twice. The Dune edition I have is the original North American Region 1 release by Artisan that has two disks, 16:9 widescreen, and includes a 25 minute program on the making of the film. Actually it’s quite an interesting extra. I’m not sure what extras are included in the UK release. Sound quality is good, and the price, including postage, was under £20. Quite a good value for over 4 hours of enjoyable programme material. However, there is a now a longer 3DVD ‘special edition’ set, which adds considerable new extra footage that was not included in the TV series. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the extra scenes. I could comment on the morality of a publisher republishing an improved version just after the fans have bought the standard one, but I will refrain from doing that here. Artisan have a web site at artisanent.com, if you have the patience to wait, to find what you want, while the graphics-heavy pages load.

(Universal, 1984)
(Artisan DVD, 2000)

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